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From Child Life patient to Child Life specialist

Camille Fraser was a teenager with a cancer diagnosis when she was helped by a Vanderbilt Child Life specialist and immediately knew she had seen her future career. That was 13 years ago and Fraser is now a Vanderbilt Child Life specialist herself. But she never caught the name of the woman who inspired her.

by December 7, 2017

Camille Fraser with Caleb Daniel and their green friend Hank. She says the time she spent as a patient helps her understand what children and families are going through. Photo by Anne Rayner.

Camille Fraser found her life’s calling through a childhood cancer diagnosis — and the care of a Child Life specialist whose name she doesn’t know to this day.

Fraser hopes that this article may jog someone’s memory and help her solve the mystery of the identity of the woman in the distinctive headband at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt in 2004 who helped her through her treatment and recovery, and, without even knowing it, inspired a young girl to a career.

Fraser, now a Child Life specialist herself at Children’s Hospital, works in pediatric cardiology and the Pediatric Cardiac Intensive Care Unit.

Child Life specialists are vital members of the health care team, they are trained professionals with expertise in helping children and their families cope with and be successful in their hospital journey.

Fraser hopes that this article may jog someone’s memory and help her solve the mystery of the woman who inspired her career. “All I remember was that she had on Weeble headband, and she was so sweet. That one interaction changed my life, and now I do what I love because of her and I don’t even know who she is.”

In November 2004, at age 13, Fraser was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, one of the most common forms of sarcoma in teenagers and young adults. This cancer typically starts in long bones like the femur, tibia or humerus, or in the pelvis.

Fraser needed to have a central line placed before the start of her treatment. She was uncomfortable with needles and she was stressed about the surgery for the central line placement.

“A Child Life specialist came in and provided procedural support for me. When I had my IV placed, she also brought in a Broviac [a central line] for me to see and talked to me about that and prepared me for that surgery,” she said.

That comfort and interaction made all the difference in the way the apprehensive girl with the scary diagnosis felt about her surgery. But the encounter was even more significant than that.

Like many young teenagers, Fraser had been thinking about what she wanted to do for a career, and, in that moment in her hospital room, something clicked.

“She walked out of the room and I told my mom, ‘I am going to do that’—and I did,” Fraser said. But she didn’t catch the woman’s name.

“I am a big planner and I sort of wanted to know what I was going to do [for a career]. I thought about teaching, I thought about nursing, I thought about psychology, but Child Life put everything together and tied it up with a perfect little bow.”

Caleb, Hank and Camille

The way Child Life combines all those fields is evident in Fraser’s interactions with her patients. One day recently 4-year-old Caleb Daniel, a heart patient, plops on Fraser’s lap ready for playtime with Hank, a child-size green puppet with flaming orange hair.

Caleb erupts with a cheerful “Yay” when Fraser suggests Hank come out to play. The preschooler greets Hank with a big hug. Fraser creates the voice for Hank and animates his movements. They chat about what they ate for breakfast.

“Pancakes” replies Caleb, who then asks Hank, “Are you tired?”

“I was tired and I went to sleep last night and now I’m ready to play,” Fraser answers for Hank in a voice reminiscent of a puppet akin to Grover on Sesame Street.

From that moment when she was a 13-year-old cancer patient, Fraser not only knew that Child Life was her dream job, she knew she wanted to return to the hospital that had cared for her when she was so sick — Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt.

Fraser has developed a rapport with patients and families on a unit where many families spend weeks and sometimes months at Children’s Hospital. Children call out from their rooms when they see her in the hallway. She goes on off-the-floor outings with a procession of patients, like Caleb, to Seacrest Studios or patient activities and events at the Butterfly Performance Stage on the second floor.

Monique Anthony, RN, then a nurse in Pediatric Hematology/Oncology, with Camille Fraser as a 13-year-old patient.

From that moment when she was a 13-year-old cancer patient, Fraser not only knew that Child Life was her dream job, she knew she wanted to return to the hospital that had cared for her when she was so sick — Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt.

“I was dead set on it,” Fraser said. “I worked at a day care to get experience with child development. I sat down with [now director of Patient- and Family-Centered Care] Janet Cross to find out specifically what I had to do to get here. I set myself up. It didn’t come easy necessarily because the Child Life field is quite competitive.”

During her stay for cancer treatment, she personally experienced how special Children’s Hospital is, and she also shared the experience that many of her current patients face — many return visits, and many weeks in the hospital.

“Being from Nashville — I grew up in Brentwood — it was a big blessing to have such an incredible hospital right here,” Fraser said. “I remember they had the Christmas decorations up already the day I walked in for my baseline scan. I thought, ‘OK this place isn’t so bad.’”

 From a patient to a colleague

After multiple rounds of chemotherapy, Fraser had five to six inches of her right fibula removed. Still she continued another seven months of chemotherapy, switching to homebound school to keep up when she felt well enough.

“I would come in on a Tuesday for treatment, and I had all my treatments inpatient. I typically would be discharged on a Friday, but there were times I stayed into the weekend because of complications,” she said.

“I know what it feels like to be stuck in your room for long periods of time. I know how to be creative and to work around and meet your needs when you’re stuck in a small space. I know what it means to be a part of family that is dealing with a very difficult diagnosis.”

During those long stays, she became familiar with the same challenges that she now helps patients get through. Crafting was a favorite pastime and coping mechanism for her in the hospital, as she made jewelry for many of her nurses. When the sunshine in the room got too bright, she learned that hanging black construction paper on the windows allowed her a little more rest.

Because she was on unit 6A, the myelosuppression unit where patients are immunocompromised, many of her friends could not visit. Along with her family, many of the nurses became part of her support group.

“They ended up being like my friends even though they were older than I was. They were a huge support for me, and many are still here like Miss Yo, Miss Linda, Adele, Melissa, Anthony in float pool,” Fraser said. “I see my oncologist, Dr. [Richard] Ho, around. It’s neat that they’ve gotten to see me grown up and now I am a colleague.”

My experience gave me a unique perspective

Three years after completing her cancer treatments, in 2008, Fraser began volunteering at Children’s Hospital.

“I volunteered in playrooms for one summer; and I volunteered in radiology waiting for one summer. I did mission work through high school. I just started looking for any opportunity to start building my resume in high school because I knew this profession was small and competitive,” Fraser said.

From there she attended Lipscomb University, majoring in Family Relations with a minor in Spanish. She did a practicum at Children’s Hospital, and then went on to do an internship at Children’s Hospital in Orange County (CHOC) in California. She got a job at Niswonger Children’s Hospital in Johnson City, Tennessee, to get even more experience. And when a PRN job opened up at Children’s Hospital, she applied and was hired in July 2016. In December of that year, the Child Life specialist position opened up in Cardiology.

“While I was in the PRN role I covered Cardiology once a week and fell in love. The job came out in December and I jumped on it,” she said.

While Fraser doesn’t go out of her way to inform patients and families that she was once a patient herself, she feels like that experience gives her a unique perspective.

“I think I see the bigger picture. I know what it feels like to be stuck in your room for long periods of time. I know how to be creative and to work around and meet your needs when you’re stuck in a small space. I know what it means to be a part of family that is dealing with a very difficult diagnosis,” she said.

“In Child Life as a whole, we’re trained very heavily in patient- and family-centered care. That is one of our biggest goals. I feel like I bring in a different perspective because I’ve lived that.”

The mystery woman in the Weeble headband

Even 13 years later, now that Fraser has come full circle, she wonders about the Child Life specialist from that one intervention, that one interaction. Who was she?

An important clue is that she was wearing an item of clothing emblazoned with a popular toy of that era—a Weeble.

“All I remember was that she had on Weeble headband, and she was so sweet. That one interaction changed my life, and now I do what I love because of her and I don’t even know who she is.”

Child Life, Camille Fraser, cancer